Mental Health & Spirituality

This is a topic I’ve wanting been wanting to discuss and bring more into my counseling practice for awhile now.

And so, it begins.

Truly, I believe Inner Work is one of the highest forms of spirituality, but for the sake of explanation, I’ll separate the two in the following paragraphs.

Spirituality is hard to define, because unlike religion, it’s really up to the individual to define it. In broad terms, spirituality is the belief of something greater than oneself, such at the Divine, or the deep connection shared between all living thing. It’s the Sun and the Moon, the Earth and the Sky, it’s Me and You (or, as Marin Buber would say, the relationship of “I and Thou”).

Mental health refers to your the well-being of your mind and includes psychological, emotional, and social well-being. It considers where you are on the spectrum of despair and joy and how well you’re managing daily life (I wanted to say “human existence”, but that already connects us right back to the spiritual.)

In past years, we’ve seen a lot of spiritual teachers speak simply of being happy, connecting to the Divine, and raising our vibrations. They talk about eliminating negative thoughts and switching right to positive affirmations.

Then, we have the mental health therapists, talking about the reality of depression and other mental illnesses, cognitions, being with uncomfortable emotions, and “feeling your feelings”*.

(Actually, I wish more therapist practiced “feeling-based” therapies…too many still focus only on the mind, forgetting the mind and body are connected.)

Now these two seemingly opposing world’s are reuniting. Most spiritual teachers I follow now speak about trauma work, such as Gabrielle Bernstein in her recent book Happy Days: The Guided Path from Trauma to Profound Freedom and Inner Peace. Then we have psychologists like Lisa Miller, PhD, researching and writing books like The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and the Quest for a Inspired Life.

I’ve had a lot of friends first on the spiritual path of meditation, Yoga, etc., and then have to back track to mental health. At Naropa University, where I went to grad school, we were taught early on in meditation class the term “spiritual bypassing”. In other words “lets just clear our mind and pretend emotions like sadness, anger, and fear don’t really matter”. That path can only last for so long, although it may be years, until a person eventually hits that “breaking” moment when their soul demands attention for the deep wounds to be healed. (With that, a few spiritual practices early on make for great coping and regulation skills during therapy.)

Now let’s circle back to the idea that Inner Work is one of the highest forms of spirituality.

If we think of Parts work (or IFS), we know that the more we work with our wounded and protector parts (ex: Inner Critic, Ego, Addict, etc) and reintegrate them into the whole, the closer we are to our Higher Self, or what Richard Schwarts simply calls the “Self.” This is the part of us most aligned with our true nature, and for those who practice spirituality-our god/universe/divine-center. Similarly, the more we work with uncomfortable emotions and allow them to be seen and felt, the easier they shift and transform, like clouds in the sky. Built up clouds and emotions lead to storms. Clouds and emotions that have room to move allow for more sun, spirit, and joy to come through.

In short, if I don’t fear not being enough, I have the freedom to just be the full expression of me.

This is why, as a mental health therapist, I still enjoy listening to Abraham Hicks, Wayne Dyer, and Louise Hay*. We do want to raise our vibrations and think better thoughts. I just want to “modernize” things a bit.

First, I think we need to switch from using the word “negative” to “uncomfortable” when speaking about our emotions. I do understand the term negative when it comes to energy, but it’s important that we don’t label any of our emotions as “bad”. All emotions are sources of information and deserve to be seen and felt. That is how we validate ourselves.

From there, we can make “feeling good” a two-step process, with the first part being feeling our uncomfortable emotions. At the beginning, this includes the deep Inner Work of working through trauma and inner child wounds. We have to dig in here so we can truly allow the light to shine in and heal us. Expect a lot of storms and a lot of rainbows. While uncomfortable emotions may never go away, they do start to move through a lot faster once we’ve worked through the deep stuff and have had practice feeling our emotions.

This is also where happiness is a choice…we have to choose to do the work.

In the second step, while their still is choice involved, choice to “choose the better thought”, and to choose your actions on the path towards a meaningful and joyful life, I believe its more about simply allowing. Again, when we let go of the darkness, when we heal our pasts and learn how to move through emotions, the sun naturally wants to shine. Really, its about stepping into your Light.

To summarize, I would say that the mental health/spiritual journey is really the brave journey of going through the darkness, the darkness of our minds, so we have the freedom to be the highest versions of ourselves.

*In The Power is Within You, Louise Hay writes about how, after her cancer diagnosis, she had to go back and feel her resentment and deal with past trauma.

3 Replies to “Mental Health & Spirituality”

  1. I’ve been making an effort to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. The big ones are around my marriage ending and the future I thought I had vanishing so quickly. So at any thoughts of rejection and the deep sorrow of loss, I’ve been trying to say “Thank you, God, for 20 years with an amazing woman who was my best friend and who I was given the gift of getting to love at a level I never would have dreamed possible. I’m truly blessed!” Is there any evidence this type of thought replacement actually works to improve mental health?

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    1. Great question. So yes, there is absolutely research on how gratitude can improve our mental health. The limit is that gratitude can not override grief…it can be part of it yes, but its not meant to take the place of feeling sorrow and loss. Instead, it is compassion for yourself to feel those hard feelings and then gratitude can be found within that. I get what you’re saying about “thought replacement”, I just hesitate personally to use those words as some people would mistake it for “feelings replacement”.

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      1. Yeah, that makes sense. I think I’ve allowed the grief to express itself well and for a long enough time. It often turns into self doubt and negativity for me so that’s what I’m trying to replace with the gratitude, I think, because those things are paralyzing for me. Thanks for your repsonse, Ray!

        – James

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